I did not, technically, come to New York completely fresh faced. A Westchester County native, the big city was always only an hour or so’s train ride away, and I even had an internship a few days a week on the upper west side at the end of my senior year.
But none of it could have prepared me for actually moving there.
As a first-year at Barnard College, I promised myself I would not be one of those typical, wide eyed dreamers coming to the Big Apple only to have my hopes crushed. I was prepared for rejection, and hardship, ready to tackle the speed and attitude of the city.
I was, and still am, as wide eyed as ever. I still get chills thinking about how the subway lines are like labyrinths, hidden worlds under the pavement above. When I walk through Times Square, even though I have gone there every year with my family for the past decade, I want to drop everything and spin around in circles, staring at neon Broadway lights, envisioning myself up on one of those stages. In this city, I see everything through rose-colored glasses; or perhaps rainbow-colored glasses is the better word, because everything seems to take on new colors.
I once took the subway to Coney Island by myself and watched the most stunning sunset I had ever seen. It was like paradise rose up around me; the sky turned ten thousand different colors. Another day, I went to the MOMA and stared at the Persistence of Memory and Starry Night for hours. Isolated moments shine like gems: once I impulsively took the subway, not knowing where I was going but needing to get out of the campus bubble, and I ended up walking to Central Park, where I saw the city fade into beautiful autumn forests, and where the reflection of the buildings in the reservoir looked like a parallel universe. One Friday night, I impulsively went to a free meditation class that turned out to be the most relaxing experience I’d had in years. Another night, my friends and I visited the Chelsea Hotel, where Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso philosophized, Charles Bukowski and Arthur Miller wrote, Bob Dylan composed, and Sid Vicious may or may not have stabbed Nancy Spungen. History abounds here – everywhere you step, some god of pop culture has probably walked before.
There really is no place in the entire world like New York City. After four months of living here, I’ve already met idols of mine in the flesh. There’s nowhere else better to explore a music career like I’ve been trying to, going to open mics whenever I can, and there’s a constant rush and energy in the air knowing that any member of the audience could be a famous producer. There’s a rush and energy everywhere, and everyone from New York can feel it – a pulse, a spark, a certain x factor that is impossible to deny.
But it’s that very spark that burns a hole to the dark underbelly of the city. After all, for every New York success story, there’s another failure, another burned-out, incredibly talented but luckless hopeful departing for a cheaper abode. An acting teacher once told me that the most talented people in the world are walking the streets of New York looking for jobs, and he was right.
The opportunities are abundant, but this can be toxic. As a college student taking a full course load and devoting most of my time to theater productions as well, I don’t have nearly enough time to explore the city, and sometimes I don’t leave campus for weeks. The aforementioned moments were anomalies; most of the time, I’m holed up in my dorm worrying about frustratingly normal college-aged issues, like mental health and course selection. This leads to a constant ricocheting between feeling like I’m not following my dreams and taking advantage of the city and feeling like I’m failing to be productive or actually doing anything. I’ve noticed that while the highs are higher here, the lows are lower. I’ve become a much more emotional person, more anxious, more angry than I ever thought possible. It’s as if the city’s fury has infected my blood; I want to be more than ever; at times it feels like the ground is falling out from under me.
And there are always people doing more, doing better, doing a million things far greater than me. New York is a city where someone always will inevitably be shining ten thousand watts brighter. At open mics, there are always people far more talented than than me, with record deals and gigs lined up. I haven’t come close to being noticed by any producers. I barely even have time to perform. While I envisioned myself becoming at home in Brooklyn, frequenting the cheap concerts and art installations there, I’ve only been there twice, and once we just went to Starbucks, so I don’t count that. The energy here can be overwhelming, and I’ve found myself pushing myself too hard to constantly move only to crash and burn. I’m known as the girl who never sleeps, and it’s true; I’ve watched the sun rise more than I’d like to admit.
But I haven’t come close to losing my bright-eyed love of this city; in fact, it’s just the opposite. I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with this place, which is terrifying, because I know how easy it is to plummet to the bottom, to crash and burn, in a world so rich with opportunity and ripe for disaster. But it’s also incredible to wake up and know that just a subway ride away are all the greatest paintings in the world. It’s extraordinary to know of all the opportunity, to compete with people and become a better performer because of it, and to trace the footsteps of old idols and world-changers. I may have a romantic view of New York, but that’s not changing anytime soon. I love the small walled gardens I walk by in between skyscrapers; I love the neon signs, the glitter of Fifth Avenue pressed up against the dirt of the streets; I love the random street performers and subway acrobats, the coffee shops and used bookstores tucked enchantingly into corners, the possibility and tragedy and emotion that flood the streets.
Maybe someday I’ll defect to some distant oceanside town, dull-eyed and worn-out. But truthfully I don’t see that happening. Moving to New York City was a terrible decision because I will never be happy living anywhere else. There is nowhere else for me. Once you get here, you get addicted to the city lights, to the adrenaline, to the incredible energy of this place that is truly like nowhere else in the world. Every time I’m able to leave campus to go out into the city, I come back so refreshed, full of new ideas and new energy that devours the shadows in my veins like white blood cells. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by college, the city picks me up again. On those streets and avenues I can become other people, can inhabit whatever world I choose.
I have to make peace with the fact that I do have to stay on campus most of the time for now. But I’m going to do my best to take advantage of all I can, to spark, even if I burn.
At the Chelsea Hotel, my friends and I were sitting outside recording a music video when a woman walked by with a security guard. Afterwards, it turned out that she was a famous documentary-maker who had heard us harmonizing haphazardly in the cold. Everywhere, there are the most talented people in the world; everywhere, there are ghosts of legends.
Maybe my idea of New York City is more dream than reality. Maybe I’ve fallen in love with illusions, shades of old stars, the faded glamour and rage of a city that has defined America and the world for generations. But there are new stars to be born, and new stories to be written. For now, I’m going to be wide-eyed and soak up every light, until the city knocks me down or I climb to the very top.